Five Things I Love About Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway

Thoughts about the relentlessly delightful ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida

We just got back from a week-and-some-change-long trip to Walt Disney World for a milestone birthday. I’ll probably have more to say about it later after I’ve done more reminiscin’, but there were two immediate standouts: the Skyliner, and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

The ride replaced The Great Movie Ride in the Chinese Theater at the center of the park, and it’s notable for being the first ride with the Mickey Mouse characters. (There have been shows and movies, but never a ride).

I just loved it. I’d already spoiled myself by watching ride-throughs on YouTube, but still had a huge grin throughout, both times we got to ride it. It most reminded me of the first time I rode Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland, not just because they’re both trackless ride systems, but because they’re both start-to-finish delightful in a way that supersedes individual gags or overall spectacle.

There’s too much it does well for me to pick just one thing, so here’s five:

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Literacy 2021: Book 12: Zen in the Art of Writing

A collection of essays combining Bradbury’s philosophy of writing along with some victory laps for his best work

Book
Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Synopsis
A collection of essays and poems from throughout Bradbury’s career, with a common theme of Bradbury’s philosophy about and process towards writing.

Pros
Offers more insight into the ideas that led to books like Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and the novel and screenplay of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Gives a better picture of Bradbury as a man, beyond his often bombastic prose, who seems to have been blessed with a lack of self-doubt without being arrogant. Describes flow state without using the phrase “flow state,” years before the concept became common enough for me to hear about it. Includes accounts of writing for different media, such as plays and screenplays. Repeats his assertion that the value of writing is entirely in the writer’s unique voice, an invaluable reminder for those of us filled with self-doubt or imposter syndrome, paralyzed into inaction for fear that we have nothing original to contribute. Has an interesting description of his working with Disney on the Spaceship Earth attraction, which I got to read from poolside, right before riding it.

Cons
Heavier on the memoir side than the guide-to-writing side. Not much in the way of practical advice, apart from the most practical advice there is: put in the time and effort, write a lot, and don’t overthink it. Contradicts some of his earlier assertions, as he muses on the idea of revising the novel Fahrenheit 451 with some of the revelations he had while making a stage adaptation of it. Unclear whether Bradbury felt that the actual craft of writing is innate, or just beyond the scope of these essays. Repeats some of the claims from his other essays, forewords, and afterwords — such as his assertion that he could remember being born — which are inevitable for an author as prolific and long-lived as Bradbury, but which make his work seem smaller and more finite.

Verdict
Good supplemental material for fans of Ray Bradbury, but as a guide to aspiring writers, the content can be summed up simply as “keep writing, and your unique voice will manifest itself.”

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Feel the Flow, Here We Go

One song from Epcot Center and another song that captures how I felt as a 13-14 year old in Epcot Center.

The Universe of Energy pavilion wasn’t my favorite (although the pre-show with a film projected on rotating panels was mind-blowing to teen Chuck and hasn’t been matched since). But the “Universe of Energy” theme song has almost everything I love about early Epcot: undeniably early 80s, with that kind of inspiring instrumentation that made you feel like F Yeah with Exxon and American ingenuity, we can do anything wait what’s that about an oil spill?

I say “almost everything” because another of my favorite aspects of early Epcot was how 60s and 70s animation was still lingering in unexpected places: a Roman chariot turning a corner in Spaceship Earth, several scenes in World of Motion, and the “horror story” section of Journey Into Imagination. It made the park feel almost like a showcase for the Disney educational cartoons.

And to this unabashed nerd, it was like they’d combined Disney World and PBS into a full-sized version of 3-2-1 Contact that I could walk through. I’m definitely not anti-IP, and I’d prefer a movie-based attraction to a corporate sponsorship any day, but I do think it’s a little sad that when it came to Epcot Center, the edutainment nerds lost. It was inevitable, in retrospect, that entertainment would win out for people spending a ton of money on a vacation. (Especially since it should’ve been obvious to everyone, even in the late 70s, that Disney would never be willing to make the kind of recurring investment required to keep the educational material current and interesting). But at least it’s comfortably settled into nostalgia, which is both fun for aging nerds and profitable for Disney, so win-win!

Semi-New Song Sunday: Michael Kiwanuka

Michael Kiwanuka’s 2019 album is so full of epic, swelling soul that I wish I had more frame of reference to describe it.

I’d stumbled on the video to Michael Kiwanuka’s “You Ain’t the Problem” last year, and while I like that song a lot, I wasn’t enthused enough to dig any deeper.

My mistake was assuming that this was music you could full appreciate from a couple of singles. While checking out the whole spatial audio business, I saw that the album KIWANUKA was given the Dolby Atmos treatment, and I listened again. This really demands that you sit back and give the whole album a listen, because it’s an experience. Songs flow into each other, call forward and back to each other, pick up bits of melody; it feels like an epic, swelling concept album, with its amazing string arrangements throughout.

It’s undeniably a kind of homage to early 1970s soul, but it doesn’t feel like just a throwback or a pastiche, but a contemporary album building on that music. It actually makes me wish I listened to more soul, so that I had a better frame of reference than just What’s Goin’ On? and the Grand Theft Auto soundtracks.

“Hero” is another powerful song from the album, with a powerful video, but to me it makes it feel a little bit “smaller” than it actually is. As if it were little more than a callback to earlier music, instead of part of a new album that should itself be influencing musicians 50 years from now.

One song where the video does help, in my opinion, is “Home Again” from his 2011 debut album of the same name. (Which is a good bit lighter than KIWANUKA, and also pretty fantastic). It’s kind of a visual indicator of what the music is doing: taking a fairly straightforward and repetitive base and layering these fantastic arrangements on top of it to make something epic. Don’t make the same mistake I did, and assume that everything great about Kiwanuka’s music can be contained in a few singles.

Space (I’m Somewhat Skeptical About)

Some observations about Apple Music’s push for spatial audio

(Image of a Brazilian lion who wants more space from Nick Park’s brilliant Creature Comforts short)

If you subscribe to Apple Music, you’ve already been bombarded with invitations to try out their new support for Dolby Atmos/spatial audio. It’s been available for about a month at this point, but I’m only just now investing the time to put on some headphones and check it out.

My take so far is that it’s not nearly as earth-shattering as Apple’s making it out to be, but when it does work, it’s pretty neat. One thing that I’ve heard people say repeatedly is that it’s hit or miss: on some songs, it sounds great, but it can actually make others worse. I’d agree with that somewhat. I don’t dislike it enough to turn off the feature, but I do think that on some tracks, it lets vocals get lost in the mix and can make some other parts have less impact than on the stereo version.

My hearing isn’t all that great, but I’d still say that I can tell that there’s enough difference to make a difference on more tracks than not. Also: it’s one of my pet peeves that whenever anyone on the internet is reviewing a feature like this, or some piece of audio equipment, they always make sure to qualify their review by saying that they’re not an audiophile. They do it because they know somebody is going to barge onto the comment sections making themselves out to be an expert, pointing out some extremely esoteric thing that the manufacturers or the engineers or whoever got horribly, embarrassingly, devastatingly wrong. We all need to stop entertaining those opinions, because those people are not the target market for 99% of this consumer-grade audio equipment.

Anyway, tangential pet peeve aside, my hearing tends to be pretty lousy. But I felt like these tracks (mostly from Apple’s suggested “Made for Spatial Audio” playlist) stood out:

  • “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5
    Michael’s vocals are a little muted compared to the stereo version, but it felt more like being in the middle of a live performance, and I’m sold on the opening piano & bass riff alone.
  • “Don’t Know Why” and “Seven Years” by Norah Jones
    Consensus seems to be that jazz does particularly well under Dolby Atmos, and both of these feel like being at a live performance. (I already said “Seven Years” is my favorite track from that album, but “Don’t Know Why” is the famous one).
  • “Moanin'” by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers
    “Song for my Father” by Horace Silver
    I’m not a big fan of jazz in general, but these are two of my favorite songs, and I think you can tell the clearer separation of the different parts, and it helps everything feel more “present.”
  • “Mystery Lady” by Masego & Don Toliver
    I’d never heard of this artist, but he must be on Apple’s list of Artists To Promote. I don’t have a non-Atmos version to compare it to, but I really like this song and the rest of the album.
  • “BOOM” by Tiesto & Sevenn
    Never heard of them, either, and this feels like a novelty song. Like a “Where’s Your Head At?” for today’s generation. But it’s pretty great as a loud, dumb demo of the spatial audio.
  • “All I Wanna Do” by Sheryl Crow
    I’ve liked this song (and the rest of the album) ever since it came out, and I don’t care who knows it. The remix feels kind of unnecessary, but it’s pretty neat how it separates the percussion and hand-claps from everything else. The other, non-Atmos tracks from the same greatest hits album illustrate the difference in the mix, since in those it does sound like the entire band was crammed together around one of two microphones.
  • “Not Dead Yet” by Lord Huron
    This is kind of a boring track from their most recent album, to be honest, but it’s a good example of what a sound engineer can do if they get creative with the mix. Parts seem to move around in 3D space, coming to the center to take prominence, and then fading out to the back left or back right. It’s a little like the Ghost Host in the stretching room of the Haunted Mansion, if he were an alt-country musician.
  • “Jupiter” from Holst’s The Planets, by the London Philharmonic Orchestra
    I think the effect is a little subtle compared to the stereo, but it’s noticeable — everything seems to be positioned more like an actual orchestra, so the woodwinds sound to me distinctly separated from the french horns, which are separated from the trumpets, etc.
  • “Jessica” by The Allman Brothers Band
    Honestly, I don’t know if the spatial audio makes a bit of difference on this track, but I like this song and I liked getting another chance to hear it on headphones.

And that last bit is key: honestly, if somebody told me that this was all just a psychological experiment, and there wasn’t actually a remix involved, but just a placebo effect combined with listening to audio on better headphones, I wouldn’t be mad. It’s been an invitation to listen closely to music again, instead of just having it on in the background.

I wouldn’t say it’s a bold new future for music, but it’s a good excuse to enjoy some music, and all it takes is a pair of headphones.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: A Complete Bee

This Tuesday Tune Two-Fer’s all about whatever makes you happy

There’s a new song out by the Go! Team, from their upcoming album Get Up Sequences Part One. It’s called “A Bee Without Its Sting,” and it’s joyful.

I’ve got to admit that it feels a little bit like Go! Team videos are being generated by a neural network at this point: they’re a mish-mash of Cooper Black, video and photocopier artifacts, film footage of bodegas and other city scenes, and people playing instruments in front of a green screen. But I don’t care a bit, since it’s all such a positive energy that I don’t even feel self-conscious using phrases like “positive energy.”

The only thing that could improve it, of course, is replacing the Sting. Here’s the Tantric Dad himself singing “Little Something” with Melody “What If Eartha Kitt but Super-White?” Gardot. I wish I could get past my snobbery about music like this, because I am almost-50-enough and white enough to genuinely like it, but I still can’t jettison the idea that I’m supposed to be at least a little bit embarrassed for liking it. This seems like music that affluent straight white people in their mid-50s have sex to. Like right after the end of the Cialis commercial, they get out of the tubs, open the doors of their Lexus parked nearby, and just crank this shit out while they start doin’ it. Happy Tuesday!

Literacy 2021: Book 11: Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World

I wanted a light book about Disney World history, and I chose poorly.

Book
Secret Stories of Extinct Walt Disney World: The World That Disappeared by Jim Korkis

Pros
Mentioned a couple of things that I’d either forgotten about, or had never known about on account of my “missing” teen years not going to Florida. Includes some snippets from first-hand interviews.

Cons
Badly written and sloppily edited to the point of distraction. Typos and run-on sentences which are worse because of lack of punctuation and misspellings or the infamous misused words or outright made-up words that I tried to ignore until each one dug directly into the base of my spine like an irritant. Just copies lists from somewhere; a lot of it reads like marketing material and park maps (which Korkis might have written or helped write?) Jumps between hand-waving descriptions and then weirdly specific details, as if the author were copy/pasting from a news article. Weird omissions, like If You Had Wings and Dreamflight. No photos or, in many cases, even a synopsis of the show or attraction, so people who never saw the original will be unable to get a clear picture of it, and people who did see the original will find little of nostalgic value in such a cursory description.

Why Bother Reviewing It?
After a couple dozen pages, I thought I’d just finish this one quietly and move on without comment. What could possibly be gained by trashing a low-cost, small-press, light book that in Kindle form, isn’t even that expensive? But the more I read, the more it annoyed me, because I felt like I’d paid to grade a high school paper from a student who’d written the whole thing the night before. There are lots of people who’ve been doing diligent work collecting documentation, interviews, and ephemera from the history of the parks, and you can tell it’s done as a labor of love. This just felt opportunistic, like the tourist trap shops selling knock-off Mickey Mouse T-shirts along International Drive.

Summary
Even if, like me, you’re desperate to read anything about Walt Disney World, pass on this one.

One Thing I Like About Loki

The new Loki series is a victory for “genre fiction,” since it’s full of weird stuff that’s not that weird anymore.

Pretty early in the first episode of Loki, there’s a brief scene where he’s forced to consider whether he’s a robot without being aware of it. I like the scene because it’s got such good line reads from both actors. More than that, though, it’s a good example of how the MCU acknowledges the absurdity of the whole premise of the MCU: trying to translate decades of comic book weirdness into “mainstream” movies and television.

I liked the first episode of the series a lot, but there wasn’t the same “electricity” I felt from the novelty of watching WandaVision. And I don’t think that’s a criticism! It’s a sign that 10+ years of gradually pushing out the borders of what’s “too weird for Hollywood” has paid off.

There’s so much great stuff going on in this series: the set direction, art direction, costume design, prop design, a fantastic retro animated sequence, some imaginative VFX with various time doorways and what is essentially an “exposition projector,” not to mention great casting including the always-welcome Pillboy. (Eugene Cordero, who’s just great).

And yet, I don’t have much to say about it! It’s not that novel anymore; its presence alone isn’t that remarkable. Which means I don’t have to consider the changing level of respectability of genre fiction in the mainstream, parallels to aesthetics of the Fallout series, how ideas established in comics translate to live action, any of it. I can just enjoy watching it. (Of course, I realize I don’t have to write about any of this stuff for free on a personal blog; I just am unable to turn off that portion of my brain for some reason).

The first episode was full of moments and design decisions that would’ve drawn attention to themselves just a few years ago, but now it just feels like it all simply works without comment.

Also, I was surprised at the end of the episode. We’ve known about the premise of this series forever, so in retrospect, the revelation probably should’ve been obvious. “Who’s the villain in a Loki series?” But I didn’t see it coming at all, which I take as a sign that I was actually watching the show, instead of being in detached cinema studies/media analysis mode. I wasn’t thinking about it in terms of metatext, but just as a story.

Which is how most of the source comics work, now that the 90s are over and there’s less of a trend of high-profile comics stories about comics stories. It feels like we can stop defending genre fiction and justifying genre fiction, and just enjoy genre fiction. And appreciate a Marvel series that finally seems to be embracing the Marvel aesthetic.

Image of the Timekeepers and the "sacred timeline" from the animated sequence in the first episode of Loki

Literacy 2021: Book 10: Moonwalking With Einstein

I’ve already forgotten what this one was about, yuk yuk!

Book
Moonwalking With Einstein by Joshua Foer

Synopsis
After covering the World Memory Championships as a journalist, Foer spends a year learning about the history of memory-training techniques, our understanding of how memory works, and training with some of the other competitors, before competing in the championships himself.

Pros
It’s difficult to imagine being more committed to a story about memory competitions. Does a good job of balancing personal memoir, coverage of the events and their competitors, and deep dives into the history of mnemonics and the current neurological and psychological studies. Gives an overview of techniques like memory palaces and mnemonic systems, along with explanations of why the location- and imagery-based techniques are more effective than rote memorization. Includes interviews with people with remarkable memories — either positive or negative — that are conducted with as much compassion as objective interest. Maintains an appropriate level of skepticism about his interview subjects and the entire endeavor as a whole.

Cons
Reads more like a collection of magazine articles than a cohesive book, which is great for spending time with a topic but not so great for pacing. Little practical information for learning the techniques yourself. Hints at larger practical benefits for all of the exercises that keep them from being just a stunt, but those passages are a little more vaguely hand-waving than the rest. Reading the book has made me less encouraged to try out any of the systems, since the thought of having to think of elaborate imagery to remember the name of a person I’ve just met, while they’re still talking to me and expecting me to respond, sounds more stressful than just admitting I’ve already forgotten their name.

Verdict
Emphasizes some interesting ideas: that memory is more about indexing information than simply storing it, and the ways in which memory and intelligence are interconnected. (Remembering isn’t the same as learning, but it helps learning because it gives us more frames of reference to make incoming information more “sticky.”) But I was left feeling a little disappointed that none of it seems to have much real-world practical benefit.

Fahrenheit 451 and the Author Who Refuses to Die

Re-thinking some of my own condescending opinions about Ray Bradbury’s work

I’ve been thinking a lot about Fahrenheit 451 and its surprisingly nuanced take on censorship. The kerosene-filled salamander trucks are the most dramatic, but not the most unsettlingly relevant image in the book. Instead, it’s the society that slowly and gradually gives in to our own fears and assumptions to the point where we think the firemen are a good idea in the first place.

I already wrote about Ray Bradbury’s Coda, which was included as an afterword to a 1979 edition of the book. Searching for the full text of his essay online, I could only find the occasional personal blog post, and then a full copy of it included in an obituary of Bradbury on the Cato Institute’s website. Which I won’t link to, because F the Cato Institute.

I don’t know what Bradbury’s specific and personal politics were, because I get the impression he was adamant about letting his work speak for itself. (An idea that seems forcefully underlined by his Coda). I only just started reading Bradbury’s work for the first time in the past couple of years — going roughly in order of “famousness” — and I’ve been struck by how he has a clear and undeniably specific voice, which he uses to describe concepts that are universal.

It’s that combination of universal concepts plus early-to-mid-20th-century-American mindset which initially left me with the overall impression that his works are “brilliant, but dated.” To me, they’ve seemed to communicate ideas that are immediately and crucially relevant to 21st century liberal progressives, despite their being shaped by the mindset of a period in American history that so many of us are now recognizing needs to be dismantled and un-learned.

I imagine it’s that same universality that lets people at a well-funded libertarian “think tank” interpret it as a “got ’em!” dismissal of social progressivism and inclusivity as assaults on free speech driven by frivolous special interests.

Bradbury’s Coda to Fahrenheit 451 suggests — insists, really — that neither of those takes is the right one. Except I’m a little bit more right than they are, and here’s why.

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